Admirable NZSO concert touching several rewarding themes: all German apart from Ken Young’s new piece

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkel with Samuel Jacobs (French horn)

Kenneth Young: Te Māpouriki
Mozart: Symphony No 31 in D, K 297 ‘Paris’
Strauss: Horn Concerto No 1 in E flat, Op 11
Mendelssohn: Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op 27
Schumann: Symphony No 1 in B flat, Op 38 ‘Spring’

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 24 October, 7:30 pm

I had guessed perhaps a bit cynically, that this might not be a hugely well attended concert. The balcony was well populated but the stalls were rather thin. The absentees made a serious mistake.

Its programme looked unorthodox: a relatively brief concerto for horn, an overture at the beginning of the second half, and two symphonies. And a new composition by Ken Young to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first visit to New Zealand.

Mozart: Paris Symphony
The earliest music was Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony, No 31 in D major, written in the hope of pleasing Paris audiences on his 1778 visit to Paris with his mother who died there; his father, Leopold, held Wolfgang responsible. The symphony generally met with the approval of audiences at the Parisian Concert Spirituel where it had several performances. As the programme notes remarked, Mozart was pleased to have a larger orchestra than he was used to in Vienna and he scored this symphony accordingly, in particular, for clarinets for the first time. Apart from the absence of trombones which didn’t arrive in symphonies till Beethoven’s 5th symphony, we heard a wind section that was widespread well into the next century.

The result was music that sounded more ‘symphonic’ in a 19th century sense than anything Mozart had written before and Märkel drew luminous playing of great clarity, achieving distinct contrasts between instruments, though subtle and unpretentious. Charming, crisp themes in the first movement, a gently rhythmic, unpretentious second movement; no minuet third movement, but straight into the Allegro last movement, illuminated alternately with subtlety and energy.

I noted certain player absences: no Andrew Joyce leading the cellos; concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s place taken by Associate Donald Armstrong whose place was taken in turn by one-time concert-master Wilma Smith.

Mendelssohn overture
Next in chronological order was the youthful Mendelssohn’s overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828), based on two poems by Goethe. The note pointed out that ‘calm sea’ misrepresents the poet’s meaning which really describes a ‘becalmed’ ship, a matter of serious concern in the days of sailing ships. However, the becalmed episode was breathlessly beautiful.

Fairly clearly, it was chosen as a possible allusion to Cook’s voyages, the subject of Kenneth Young’s piece, discussed later.

It’s a gorgeous, magically orchestrated work, and Märkel presided over a delightful performance, with a charming flute solo introducing the rising wind that enables the ship to make way again. Though written a couple of years after Mendelssohn’s even earlier (16) masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, it’s no less inspired and masterful. And it reminded me of the former programming tradition of starting concerts with an overture; very rare these days.

This overture is among the many that need to be resurrected, as there’s nothing like of one the scores of beautiful, memorable, thrilling overtures to implant a love of music in young minds: in my youth, an overture almost invariably opened a concert opener, and overtures opened every evening’s 6pm ‘Dinner Music’ programme on RNZ Concert’s predecessor which was important in guiding my own musical explorations.

Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony
Putting a symphony by Schumann together with the Mendelssohn, who was only a year older, was an inspired little gesture, and not merely as our Spring might be arriving. Schumann wrote his first symphony a decade later, in 1841. Apart from Berlioz’s Fantastique, it was the first important and successful symphony since the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert.

Schumann’s orchestral works have long been rather neglected, smeared ritually with criticisms of his orchestration. But this was a performance that should have won the ‘Spring’ Symphony hundreds of new fans. It was revelatory, both for its inspired, lyrical music and its originality, and very importantly through the colourful, lively performance itself, with Märkel’s careful attention to dynamic and rhythmic subtleties that simply lifted the spirit. It’s a work that suffers if played too seriously, with rhythms that are too careful; but this, throughout, was simply beguiling and brilliant: alive with sudden tempo and dynamic changes.

Strauss: Horn concerto No 1
Forty years later the eighteen-year-old Richard Strauss wrote a horn concerto for his horn-playing father (he wrote another during the Second World War). This performance with the NZSO’s principal horn player, Samuel Jacobs, was marked by an authentic stateliness and polish from the first bars; it might have been formally akin to Mozart’s horn concertos, but not so high spirited. There was calm beauty in the playing of the slow movement, and the return to the Allegro of the last movement was something of a renewal of the character of the first. In all a splendid exhibition of precocious composition and brilliant horn playing.

Just to prove that he was not simply a good player of the valve horn, Jacobs returned after spirited applause with a dull bronze coloured natural horn and danced his way through a piece by Rossini: Rendez-vous de Chase (arranged by one Hamuera Makawhio); Wikipedia tells me it’s also known as Fanfare pour quatre trompes composée pour Monsieur le baron Schickler. It was flawless and the audience was transfixed.

Kenneth Young: Te Māpouriki
Ken Young’s piece, Te Māpouriki, opened the concert: an attempt to depict James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand – the actual 250th anniversary this month. It was immediately attractive, opening with a calm, luminous, beautifully orchestrated passage dominated by flutes and piccolo in gentle dancing music. That was soon disturbed by underlying, throbbing, uneasy bass sounds that led to an troubled alternation with the treble woodwinds. Then came the surprising arrival of the New Zealand National Anthem; I couldn’t decide whether it was intended as an ironic comment, suggesting the intrusion of Europeans on the peace-loving native peoples who’d lived in the country for about three hundred years, and had devoted much of their time to waging war with each other.

A touch of history
The dominant feeling of the piece settled around this contrast between gentle, peaceful lamentation, and dissonant, intrusive conquest by more barbaric forces. But I was reluctant to interpret the music in the manner of some of the historically ill-informed, distorted interpretations of Cook’s exploration and the enlightened intentions that guided him in his approach to native peoples with whom he made contact. But the programme notes gave me no comfort from such misrepresentation.

I was mystified by Young’s remarks quoted in the programme notes, “…and Cook, the man unable to divest himself of his background as a hegemonic absolutist…” and that he was “unable to deny the arrogant and imperialistic nature of his temperament and agenda”.

Cook’s brief was to explore, to observe planetary phenomena – the Transit of Venus in Tahiti and the Transit of Mercury at another location which turned out to the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s as if mankind’s urge to explore his planet had not been increasingly important at least from the Renaissance. He was emphatically NOT urged to claim territory, and did not do so.

Indeed, the programme notes seemed to turn away from the better-informed and historically objective views that make it clear that we cannot always apply today’s attitudes to historical events.

Cook, as well as other explorers in the Pacific at the time, such as De Surville who almost encountered Cook around North Cape and Marion du Fresne were creatures of the Enlightenment – in the case of the French, deeply affected by Rousseau’s views on ‘the noble savage’, and they made serious efforts to deal with indigenous people humanely. Du Fresne, after five weeks of exemplary relations with Maori at the Bay of Islands in 1772, was killed along with 24 of his crew, evidently for unknowingly breaching sacred rituals.

The British Royal Society’s advice to Cook embodied this Enlightenment spirit and it’s very clear that Cook and the scientists and artists accompanying him took these matters very seriously.

In the case of Cook at Turangnui-a-Kiwa (Gisborne), his men were attacked and their reprisals, not sanctioned in any way by Cook, were a matter of extreme regret to Cook and his companions.

Nor is anything to be gained from attributing blame for unfortunate events of the past to just one group, especially when the behaviour of the explorers was exemplary by any standards and certainly were, in the context of the late 18th century.

The wrongs between Maori and Europeans occurred not with Cook’s contacts, but with the arrival of whalers and sealers and other adventurers, and during the period of the murderous Musket Wars between Maori iwi in the decades before 1840. In those wars perhaps 10,000 Maori were killed without any involvement by Europeans whatsoever. Nor is there any argument about the unjust and exploitative dealings by land-hungry settlers during the period after the establishment of self-government in New Zealand, from around the 1860s – almost a century after Cook’s arrival here.

It might be useful for those parading these ill-informed views, to read the unimpeachable article by Graeme Lay in the Listener of 12 October.

None of this detracts from Young’s very engaging music and Jun Märkel’s sensitive and sympathetic performance. Whatever its inspiration, its musical and emotional characteristics were most interesting and the orchestra conjured a satisfying feeling of imaginative, descriptive music.

Full success for three works at Edo de Waart’s first Strauss excursion of his tenure

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Edo de Waart, with Samuel Jacobs (French horn)  

Escher: Musique pour l’esprit en deuil
Mozart: Horn Concerto No 4 in E flat, K 495
Strauss: Sinfonia domestica, Op 53

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 30 July, 7:30 pm

In an account of the music I got to hear in Sydney last December (see review of 4 January 2016), I reported hearing two concerts by Edo de Waart and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; one of them featured Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and I allowed myself to be delighted that we would probably be getting some fine Strauss from him after he took over the reins of the NZSO.

This was the first Strauss outing, though we heard Mahler’s Third Symphony and Beethoven’s Eroica under De Waart in April.  Last year, you’ll recall, he came and conducted Mahler’s Ninth in August.

So the somewhat less often played Sinfonia Domestica was much looked forward to. However, I was a little surprised at the not-full house for this splendid concert, and can scarcely believe that anyone would pass up such a concert in order to sit in the freezing wind in the Stadium to watch a football match.

Rudolf Escher
The concert opened with a real surprise – a symphonic poem by a Dutch composer I’d never heard of: one Rudolf Escher whose father was the half-brother of M C Escher, the artist whose architectural etchings depicting irregular, impossible perspectives have continued to intrigue.

There has always been curiosity as to why the Netherlands has scarcely produced any famous composers, at least not since the Renaissance. Some of those you think might be Dutch turn out to be Belgian, like Joseph Jongen. But there are Alphons Diepenbrock and Willem Pijper; and there are a few others from the mid 20th century, including Rudolf Escher. His Musique pour l’esprit en deuil (‘Music for the spirit in mourning’) impressed me from its opening, the almost inaudible notes, finding in it a great deal of what I enjoy generally of the music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was written after Rotterdam, where he lived, was bombed to oblivion by the Germans in 1940 destroying most of his scores and possessions. While the music clearly expresses grief, it was also strangely beautiful and compelling, engaging with a rich, complex palette from a large orchestra that was skillfully and interestingly handled. There was apparently no detailed programme; anyway, I rarely try to conjure a narrative or images when listening to new music, though occasionally things come to mind.

Obviously, the composer had much on his mind here, and Edo de Waart helped the music to play itself so that the highly evocative score was endlessly absorbing without any need to look for a story or visual imagery.  The scoring was very colourful, with a piano creating a steady beat for a while, along with a wide variety of percussion, all of which seemed inevitable rather than used just because it was there. The big, slowly assembled, anguished climax came (I don’t think it was intended to depict the bombing, which would have been too trite and superficial in a composer of such obvious subtlety and intelligence), and faded calmly over a long coda, with acceptance.

Horn concerto
Mozart’s fourth horn concerto followed; such a disconnect damaged neither work. The total break between Escher and Mozart, occupied by extensive changes of players and orchestral configuration, to a small body of strings plus two each of horns and oboes. It sounded perfectly adequate after nearly four times that number a few minutes earlier.

The horn soloist was Samuel Jacobs who is soon to return to the position of principal horn in the orchestra after an absence that included the same position with the Royal Philharmonic in London. Even without the obvious international distinction of the post with the NZSO, and the impressive pedigree detailed in the programme booklet, the ears bore evidence enough of gorgeous playing confirming him as one of today’s most distinguished players.

The main feature of his playing is an almost unreal smoothness and perfection of tone which makes no gesture at all towards the idiosyncratic sounds produced by a natural horn, the use of which has become popular even in some late 19th century music. Even for a valved horn Mozart offers challenges, but audible flaws seemed inconceivable. The orchestra matched the elegance of the solo playing.

Sinfonia Domestica
The riches of this splendid concert were not exhausted however. Strauss’s domestic symphony is not as often played as for example, Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra or Don Quixote; and that’s not just because of the embarrassing intimacies that Strauss exposes us to, or the enormous wind forces that he calls for. There’s a certain naiveté and excess that is not always perfectly matched by subtlety and taste; and it’s those characteristics that no doubt fueled its enormous success at its premiere in 1904 in New York and at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia (6000 attended there over two nights), as well as the rather pious and pedantic attacks and ridicule that some critics have directed at it. If Strauss had refrained from offering any detail at all about the inspiration behind it, I’m sure its reputation would be very different.

Happily, the programme notes did not enlarge too much on the story and the audience was ready to be won over by the spectacular size of the orchestra (five saxophones, nine horns, quadruple winds elsewhere) and the stunningly accomplished performance that could still, and did, generate a rare excitement. That the house did not sell out to a knowledgeable public (do we still have one?) made me cringe for the groundless boasting by civic leaders about the ‘cultural capital’ which has been unjustified since the 1990s.

De Waart’s performance dwelt on the colour, drollerie and the purely musical elements of the composition, while taking care not to overplay aspects that lend themselves to burlesque or caricature. Then, the grand virtues of this episodic and idiosyncratic composition could be heard without hindrance and be enjoyed simply as a somewhat excessive orchestral showpiece with plenty of entertaining features and musical strengths.

It certainly succeeded splendidly at that level.